Saturday, December 01, 2007

Poem for World AIDS Day

The first time I met him, I knew
That I had met AIDS face to face.
His body, gaunt and stooped,
His eyes, like those of a frightened deer,
Silently conveyed the untold secret.
In time, his partner, my son,
Told me what I already knew.
He came to know another world
Of hospitals, drugs, blood tests, and
The constant reminder of mortality.
They managed mostly on their own,
Both accustomed to life on the edge.
I helped when I could, it wasn’t much…
An air-conditioner, some groceries,
Help with the laundry, a bit of cash.
They found a house to renovate,
The work and the dream seemed to challenge
The very thought of mortality.
The house was their hope and their future,
A fortress to guard life itself.
I got the call in the middle of the night,
My son, distraught, said Clay was gone.
A sudden trip to the hospital had been his last.
Fate had broken that heartfelt promise
That he would die at home.
I made the sad journey to help
With packing and moving and saying goodbye.
We drove to the house to gather Clay’s tools,
Still lying where he had left them,
Intending to return to his unfinished work.

Friday, November 30, 2007

On the locked ward

They walk.
Through pale green halls
They walk.
Perhaps they flee their demons
Or maybe they pursue them.
Pacing, pacing back and forth,
Pacing racing thoughts,
Moving to define
The boundary between themselves
And the world in which they move.

They watch.
With haunted eyes
They watch
A scene unseen by others.
Others can only see the reaction
On their faces:
Bewilderment, horror,
Amusement, interest.
The silent movie plays
For an audience of one.

They listen.
To compelling voices
They listen.
Voices that will not be still
Cajole and threaten,
Command and seduce,
Demanding to be heard
Through their own resounding echoes.

Friday, November 09, 2007

For the hidden ones

Over the last couple years, I have come to know the hidden ones among us. One day they are with us, and then, suddenly, they vanish. Only a few people know where they went, and many times those people suffer in silence with their secret.

The rest of the people go about their business, unaware of the hidden ones nearby. The laborer gases up his truck at the 7-Eleven, and the businessman goes inside to get coffee, and they never notice that non-descript brown brick building across the street, the one with the resort-like name of "Trinity Springs Pavilion." They are unaware that on the second floor of that building, behind 3 locked doors, is a diverse group of people brought together by the circumstance of madness. While the businessman exchanges pleasantries with the cashier or tries to choose which donut to buy, the hidden folks on the second floor are listening to a manic pizza delivery guy read his horoscope aloud, watching men pacing up and down the length of the hall, walking around the baby-faced young man who stares at unseen visions.

And there are the church ladies in a city in Florida, who once were friends with a respected woman...a school teacher and principal, active in church and community groups, who loved to entertain and most of all to talk. She starts to act odd and rumors circulate that she is crazy. The church ladies stop calling or coming to visit. One day she disappears. She has been moved by her family to an Alzheimers care facility in Texas, where she can be near her sister and nieces and nephews. She has become one of the hidden ones. When she passes away, two years later, a small group of family gathers for her funeral. If she had not become one of the hidden ones, she would have had hundreds of people at her funeral.

And there are the travellers and commuters on the interstate approaching Dallas. The scenery is rather bleak in that area south of the city, so few notice the group of barn-like blue metal buildings about half a mile off the highway. If it weren't for the signs which warn "Prison Area-Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers," few would surmise that the blue campus is a prison. These are the hidden ones who arrive in the middle of the night, sit naked in a holding cell, and then go to the newcomers' dorm, where they listen to the troublemakers in the neighboring cellblock raping someone for their shoes. The ones with an inner strength manage to maintain a sense of self and their dignity in a place that aims to take both from them. And one way to maintain that dignity is to let no one know where you are, let no one see you in that place...except your mom. So you are hidden to everyone but her.

I feel compelled to write this for the hidden ones. Most of us will never see them or see the places they inhabit. Try Googling for images of these places. You will find only pictures of administration buildings or front gates. These places are truly hidden to most of us. But some of us must go there. We are the connection to the world "out there." We hold the memories of the past and the hopes for the future, even if the hidden one cannot. We are the person who reminds the hidden one that he is more than a patient or a schizophrenic or an offender. We are the people who see the hidden ones.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Seasons of madness

His reality shattered on a night in July.
From the tenth floor window of the psych ER,
I watched an approaching storm in the distance.
The lightning illuminated his visions,
And the tumbling rumbling of the thunder
Could not drown out the threatening voices.
The heat was as oppressive as my despair.

One day, many weeks later, the wind at last
Turned from the north, bringing a hint of fall,
And I drove against it, through parched prairie,
To what was known in less enlightened days
As the insane asylum. The sun, angled now from the south,
Shone on dark brick buildings and steel bars,
As I waited for the door to be unlocked.

Today I ring the buzzer with his jacket in hand,
A sad symbol of how long he’s been locked away.
Now the sun is setting when I leave the ward,
And I drive the lonely road in utter darkness.
The night is cold, and the earthy smell of fall
Evokes memories of happier times,
Golden days, before the seasons of madness began.

This week I heard that a woman at my former church passed away after having a stroke. She was only a couple of years older than me. I read her obituary online, and it led me to consider the impossible task of summarizing a loved one's life in a few short paragraphs. I began to ponder what my own obit should say and what it would say, depending on which family member writes it. I think it's better if I write my own. Trouble is, I'd better allocate a generous sum to pay for a full page.

Galen G passed away on _________________. She was born in Fort Worth, Texas on May 19, 1952. She was fond of saying that she was part of the last generation to have a real childhood. As a child, she adored horses, reading, playing Indian, riding her bike, and going to Girl Scout camp.

Throughout her school years, she was an excellent student, making only two "B"s in 12 years of schooling. She taught herself to read the summer before entering first grade. In junior high, she first became interested in the Russian language, after seeing the movie, "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming." This interest was something of a turning point in her life, as it led her 30 years later to adopt 3 children from Russia. In high school, she was interested in history and politics and protested the Vietnam War. She graduated valedictorian in 1970 and delivered a controversial address at graduation, which the local school board recognized by passing new rules for graduation the next spring, penalizing commencement speakers who deviated from their approved texts.

Galen attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, graduating magna cum laude in 1974 with a BA in History. At Rice, she finally had the chance to study the Russian language in earnest. During the summer of 1973, she spent 3 months in Yugoslavia as part of a summer study program.

Armed with a BA in History and no marketable skills, in the middle of a recession, Galen found a job as an attendant at a state institution for the mentally retarded. This came to be another turning point, as it was her introduction to people with disabilities and to occupational therapy. She fell in love with the children under her care, eventually taking one of them home as a foster child. She attended Texas Woman's University to pursue a Master's degree in Occupational Therapy, which she obtained in 1978.

Galen began working as a pediatric occupational therapist in 1978, spending 25 years in the public schools before moving to pediatric home health. In 1981 she adopted her first child, Jesse. Over the course of the next 15 years, she adopted 9 more children who were considered "hard to place" because of their disabilities, race, or age, wanting simply to give them the chance for a family and a normal life. She saw them through more than 25 surgeries or hospitalizations and advocated for them at school. Together they enjoyed concerts, museums, state parks, and the beach on Padre Island.

Galen's spiritual journey led her through various churches, including Methodist, Unitarian, Friends, and Lutheran, but she lost her faith when she watched her dear Aunt Jing lose everything to Alzheimers. She was unable to reconcile a belief in an omnipotent, loving God with such cruel suffering.

In later years, Galen's passions were her dogs, her horse, gardening, exploring state parks, writing poetry, and the internet. As a child of the 50s, she never lost her sense of wonder over the power of the internet to provide instant communication and information and to connect the world.

Galen is survived by the four sons who remain part of her life: Jesse, Marcus, Gabriel, and Tevis.